Pasadena has been a culturally oriented community since its incorporation in June 1886, and has long supported a symphony and several dance and theatrical venues. But future prospects are not clear for theater — which incorporates dance, literary, musical and visual arts within its collaborative form — or other performing arts entities.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, local theaters such as A Noise Within (anoisewithin.org), Boston Court (bostoncourtpasadena.org), Parson’s Nose Theater (parsonsnose.org) and Pasadena Playhouse (pasadenaplayhouse.org) have been closed since March, as have Antaeus Theatre Company (antaeus.org) in Glendale and Sierra Madre Playhouse (sierramadreplayhouse.org) in Sierra Madre. Last week, in what seems a likely signal for the overall Southland theater community, the Center Theatre Group (which includes the Ahmanson Theatre, Mark Taper Forum, and the Kirk Douglas Theatre) pushed the opening of its 54th season to April 2021.
“Right now, planning for anything is like trying to nail Jello to a wall,” says Boston Court Pasadena Artistic Director Jessica Kubzansky, quoting BC’s managing director. While discussing the future of theater in greater Pasadena with Kubzansky and A Noise Within Director of Cultural Programming Jonathan Muñoz-Proulx, community and diversity were recurring themes.
Pasadena Playhouse Producing Artistic Director Danny Feldman was unavailable for an interview, but in the past he has spoken eloquently with the PW about how “community was built into the DNA” of the historic Playhouse’s physical structure and programming. That broad community factors into decisions about Playhouse offerings. One of the first community theaters in the country, California’s state theater has pivoted to the virtual sphere to offer all-ages, online theater classes that blend artistic education with community outreach.
Parson’s Nose Theater, meanwhile, is streaming Radio Theater episodes online, and Sierra Madre Playhouse has moved virtual staged readings for its Off the Page series online. For local theaters to survive and remain viable to audiences in the future, such flexibility is as vital as connecting with other arts and community organizations, and identifying what Muñoz-Proulx calls “opportunities of overlap” between missions.
“Speaking for A Noise Within, our goal is to create experiences and use performing arts to engage with all communities and have all voices onstage and really celebrate the diversity of the community that we live in,”Muñoz-Proulx says, after explaining how the company’s Noise Now program has been collaborating with organizations such as Griot Theatre, LA Opera and Latino Theater Company for a year and a half to build larger relationships with underrepresented communities.
“Now I hope there’s a real moment for theaters to recommit, or commit for the first time, to programming with a community as opposed to for a community. While we are experts in telling stories with theater, we are not experts in every story. It’s important that we have those relationships with our community so that our work is inclusive of all of those folks.”
The question of how to be better community partners has been taken up for some time by A Noise Within, Boston Court and Pasadena Playhouse. In March, Boston Court became a voting center, and hopes to do so again in November. Recent productions at the three theaters have told immigrant stories, refreshed classics with modern perspectives, or mined history for unknown episodes. Is commitment to such productions riskier in our present economy, or more necessary in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and ongoing social justice demonstrations?a
“It’s more imperative than ever,” Kubzansky says. “There’s such a profound conversation happening right now about dismantling the white supremacist system that we all live in and operate inside of. One [piece] of that has to be to reinterrogate classics from that lens. … I also think that it will probably be more important than ever to elevate new work that can become the next classic that is much more responsive to our actual world.”
Theaters need to understand they “have a platform,” Muñoz-Proulx says: “We’re recognizing that we can use our email list and our virtual streaming platform to not only invite donations to black-led organizations but also focus the attention fully on them, even if it’s not a collaboration. So I hope that moving forward, larger institutions especially can embrace what I think is a responsibility, let alone an opportunity, to use privilege to share power, to share the platform in a way that doesn’t have to benefit us. I think it’s important to acknowledge that we have privilege and we have power, and there are folks who don’t and should.”
How productions will be presented remains the dominant question, given uncertainty about when various phases of LA County’s recovery will commence. Per Kubzansky, Boston Court is planning “parking lot programming,” hopefully for this fall — musical and theatrical offerings in BC’s parking lot “with people in socially distanced circles, wearing masks, with an outdoor stage” — consistent, she emphasizes, with all health regulations and guidance. “We’re not going rogue.”
As people continue to turn to art for inspiration, solace and companionship, local theaters are determining how to meet their varying needs. Virtual programming is all but certain to remain, though not as a substitute.
“Listen, theater is essentially a live art form,” Kubzansky says. “All of us are trying our best to really reinvent the art form. Theater is about saving the world one story at a time, essentially. So our profound need for stories is not changing. The only question is, what is the story delivery method? We have all felt the huge challenge of being present virtually for things that are happening and how different it feels from being present actually, and I am so grateful that we are living in the era of technology because that is better than nothing. But nothing replaces literal communal interaction.”